Will 2015 mark the death of in-store Black Friday?

2015 is set to mark a paradigm shift in how British retailers mark the Black Friday retail holiday with Asda, Oasis and Primark already opting out as it becomes the domain of online sellers confident a seamless experience over a longer trading period can avoid the in-store chaos of previous years.

Overcrowded stores, low stock and even scuffles breaking out amongst shoppers dominated last year’s coverage of the event, casting many retailers in an unseemly light. Mindful of the damage a repeat Black Friday fracas could cause to reputation and customer loyalty, many companies have pared back their offerings as they strive to protect margin and avoid cannibalisation of sales during the Christmas shopping period.

It’s left many retailers questioning whether Black Friday is worth the hassle; some, like Asda, Oasis and Primark have decided that turning people feral for the opportunity to save a few pounds on products isn’t good for business.

However, others like Argos, Ebay and Shop Direct think the beast imported from Americaland can be a massive data opportunity. Forget about the chance to clear your warehouses of obsolescent goods, the marketers at those data-savvy companies see every new buyer as a potential lead to be followed up with smart, targeted CRM or interacted with on social media.

Indeed, there’s a lucrative opportunity for those companies that successfully tailor online shopping experiences to customer preferences, according to Aimia. Nearly half (45 per cent) of the 2,011 respondents surveyed by the analytics firm say they actively share their personal details with brands to receive relevant offers and discounts.

“Black Friday is not just about the sales on the day,” said Alex Baldock, chief executive of Shop Direct. “It's a terrific opportunity for us to profitably gain market share and loyal customers. We strongly believe that that we would be mad not to throw everything we can at it.”

It’s a confidence born from last year’s Cyber Week when Shop Direct gained nearly 50,000 new customers, of whom almost half shopped again in the next season. The retailer, which called time on its catalogue earlier this year to become a 100 per cent digital business, is ready to process eight million orders and handle 1.9 million contacts from customers in the run-up to Christmas, with 250,000 orders being processed and 50,000 customer contacts tipped to be answered on Black Friday alone.

“For a business that is now a 100 per cent digital, clearly for us it’s online," added Baldock. “As a consequence we are not distracted by the issues other ‘bricks and click’s retailers face on Black Friday and as such we can concentrate our efforts and focus totally on this one channel.”

It points to how the once simple concept of Black Friday has changed with retailers offering deals in the run up to day itself.

"At Very.co.uk we have been releasing deals from Monday 23rd November and will continue to do so not only on Black Friday and Cyber Monday but throughout Cyber fortnight," Baldock explained.

And the stretched trading period doesn’t just impact online sales but also brands’ relationships with consumers and encourages in-store purchases. After all, m-commerce, e-commerce, and bricks and mortar are simply different parts of the same brand experience, and marketers need to plan accordingly, according to Alessandra Di Lorenzo, commercial director at Ebay Advertising. Personalisation is a big focus for the online seller throughout the year, particularly for Black Friday, to build more relevant ads for shoppers.

It recently launched a set of advanced targeting products to empower advertisers to run hyper-relevant campaigns, promising that the tools move beyond demographics to segment shopper groups that would usually be targeted as a whole and pinpoint specific mindsets.

For example, to capitalise on Black Friday, Ebay used insights from its 18 million monthly unique users to launch two shopper mindsets; Premium Shoppers, who are more likely to be interested in luxury items and Sale Shoppers, who have an eye for a bargain on key dates such as Black Friday. This will allow brands to “target shoppers with different messages, such as emphasising quality or highlighting price point, to run more effective and efficient advertising campaigns,” claimed Di Lorenzo.

“The big advantage of online advertising is that it allows brands to target specific mindsets or shopper types at scale with relevant messages,” she added.

“As a result, it can be a more effective means of taking share of wallet from competitors. And it doesn’t just impact online sales but improves brands’ relationships with consumers and encourages in-store purchases.”

It’s why Google, Facebook and Instagram are wrapping up holiday audiences for advertisers to tout sharper ad targeting. Google is showing retailers what keywords people searched before clicking on their search ad and eventually visiting one of their stores, while Facebook and Instagram are offering targeting based on the holiday-related keywords people use in their posts and who posts holiday-related messages respectively.

“Advertisers are shifting their focus this holiday season from people's mailbox to their mobile phones. Instagram has become brands' shop window, where they're launching videos to evoke the festive spirit,” said Amy Cole, head of brand development for Instagram’s EMEA activity.

“It’s a 'look book', where small businesses promote unique gift ideas," she continued. "And it's an endless product catalogue in people’s pockets, where advertisers are promoting their new styles and enabling people to discover and start shopping.”

The groundswell of online activity from Shop Direct et al will cause many to question whether this is the beginning of the end for Black Friday sales in-stores. A walk through London’s high street would suggest there are still many retailers banking on shoppers scouring aisles on Friday for bargains, and yet the concept of the relatively new retail holiday is already changing with many offering deals in the run up to Black Friday itself. In this age where digitally empowered consumers want more choice, why should they only get a deal on a specific day?

Adam Reyolds, strategist at creative agency Intermarketing, thinks the answer to this question is why Black Friday’s future is “most likely” online, with players like Amazon more suited to being in it for the long term. “Plus there’s far less chance of getting punched in the face for the last item on the shelf,” he added.

People want the best possible deals to be available all of the time and if a retailer can offer that, they might get loyalty in return.

“You’re already seeing some retailers undercutting rivals with pre-Black Friday deals,” said Jon Davie, UK chief executive of Tesco’s digital agency Zone. “It’ll come to be seen as more hassle than its worth, one only for the sharp-elbowed punters desperate to be filmed emerging from the crush holding aloft a heavily discounted flatscreen TV for the evening news.”

Black Friday may be losing its appeal as more and more retailers launch sales well before Christmas and New Year but it’s created a window for marketers to revitalise the prodigal promise of e-commerce.